Protein supplements have come a long way since the days of raw eggs in a glass, and there is a massive amount of choice available for anyone who wants to up their consumption of this muscle building macronutrient.
Whey protein is seen as the gold standard in protein supplementation because it's easy to digest, rapidly absorbed, and has a balance of amino acids that closely reflect the amino acid demands of our bodies, including high levels of muscle building BCAAs. Between whey and casein, a slow digesting protein that shares similar properties, dairy proteins rule the market.
But not everybody wants a dairy protein. People with milk allergies, vegans, intolerance sufferers, and people who prefer to get their protein from alternate sources have a number of vegetable based dairy alternatives, of which soy and pea are the most popular.
A lot of people labour under the misconception that vegetable protein is inferior to protein from animal sources, when this is not necessarily the case. Soy protein has been shown to be almost equivalent to whey in amino acid quality and digestibility, but soy is not for everyone. Many people are put off soy because they erroneously believe it has a high oestrogen content (processing removes the vast majority of phytoestrogens from soy protein), and it is also a common allergen.
The popularity of pea protein as an alternative is steadily increasing, and brands like Nuzest Clean Lean Protein and Vital Protein are growing in popularity, as techniques are developed to produce soluble, neutral tasting, low allergenic protein that is claimed by the manufacturers to sport a full complement of amino acids. But how does pea protein stack up to dairy? And most importantly, can pea protein build muscle?
A group of researchers in France decided to investigate this, and compared the capacities of pea and whey protein to build muscle in young men. One hundred and sixty one men between the ages of eighteen and thirty five were split into three equal groups. The first group received 25g of pea protein twice a day, the second 25g of whey twice a day and the third was a control group who received a placebo twice a day, over the course of a twelve week upper body resistance training protocol.
The thickness and strength of each participant's biceps muscle was measured before and after the experiment.
The researchers found that all groups showed an increase in strength and muscle thickness over the twelve weeks of the experiment, reinforcing the role of resistance training in muscle hypertrophy.
When the muscle thickness in all the groups increased, the group taking pea protein showed the greatest overall increase in hypertrophy. When the entire population was looked at, participants using pea protein showed an increase that was significantly greater than placebo. Whey users showed a smaller degree of muscle growth than the pea protein group, but this was not statistically significant, nor was the difference between the whey group and the placebo group.
Interestingly, when the results from the segment of the population who were weakest in initial strength testing were looked at individually, the pea protein group gained significantly more muscle girth than they whey group, who in turn outperformed the placebo group by a significant margin.
This study smashes the idea that you can't put on lean muscle using pea protein. It shows that pea protein can be just as good, if not better than whey, and that it might be particularly well suited to people who have only recently begun resistance training. It also opens the door to further research to look into the properties of pea protein that enable these gains. Pea protein is packed with arginine, and it will be interesting to see if the increased vasodilation associated with this amino acid plays a role in promoting hypertrophy in a way whey does not.
Nicolas Babault, Christos Païzis, Gaëlle Deley, Laetitia Guérin-Deremaux, Marie-Hélène Saniez, Catherine Lefranc-Millot, François A Allaert. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015, 12:3